Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Star Inn, Alfriston

“One of the oldest and most interesting inns in England” is how the Star is described by William Gaunt in his (1958) Old Inns of England in Colour. An oft quoted tale is that the original inn on the site was the Star of Bethlehem, founded in the 13th century by the Abbey of Battle as a hospice for pilgrims on the route between Canterbury and the shrine of St. Richard at Chichester. Plausible as this story may be, it is but mere conjecture. Most writers assign a mid-15th century origin to the magnificent craftsmanship of the present High Street elevation. Here the whole weight of the heavy Horsham slab roof, and overhanging upper storey with its three oriel lead-lighted windows, is carried by a single lateral moulded oak beam. A recent professional archaeological survey of the site dates the oldest surviving structure of the Star to 1490 +/- 30 years, while Juliet Clarke, in the December 2010 issue of Sussex Past and Present, makes what she calls “a compelling case” for the Star Inn having been built by one John Archer or Cutler in 1483.

The sturdy oak front door is likely mid-16th Tudor, together with the massive internal support beams and standing uprights. There is much opening out of the brick-floored interior and I suspect that the panelling on the right was once matched on the left to form a corridor leading to the fine oak staircase. Look up at the old, carved timber arch above the door into the enclosed front-right bar. The counter front is of old timbers on hardboard, while the counter top and back shelving, I am informed, are from the 1950s. Spot the disused staff door at the left of the servery and the flap and split door from the passage. The inn was supposedly a sanctuary house. See the window wall post bearing in gothic script the sacred letters IHS, this touched by fugitives to grant them protection from their persecutors. It is further claimed that this room was once the inn kitchen and that the open hearth, with its iron fireback, is of Tudor construction. 

The comfortable left-side lounge was two rooms now conjoined; the fireplace in stone is flat-arched Tudor; the other has the hallmarks of 1930s brickwork. Backing onto this is a mid-20th century stepped brick fireplace, located in the Library Room. The rear areas are modern and one must return outside to view the most fascinating features, the intriguing assortment of medieval wood carvings arrayed along the half-timbered frontage.  St Michael fights an amphisbaena; two serpents entwine tails below a tabernacle; a mitred bishop is attended by stag couchant; what could be a monkey and bear (or lion) climb a coronet-topped staff at a corner post, while dotted around are various heraldic emblems and grotesque ‘Green Men’ gargoyles; a terrier is carved into the north-east corner; a Bacchanalian reveller with bottle and flask has apparently disappeared or was misconstrued in the first place. Most curious of all is the red-painted lion-like figurehead free-standing on the pavement. Of “repellent mien, globular, basilisk eye, immense, implacable jaw and sensual lips” (Garry Hogg, 1974, The English Country Inn), it is reputed to have been salvaged some centuries ago from a Dutch naval vessel.

The identification of the carved figures and the provenance of the figurehead require more investigation. Watch this space.

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